WNYC’s ‘The Eights’: Harris Polls On Gun Control, Gay Rights and America’s Greatness Capture 1978’s Culture Wars

(R-L): Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema and Executive Editor Michael D'Antonio

Yesterday’s (May 23) episode of “The Eights,” a new series launched by WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show in partnership with The Harris Poll, tackled America’s culture wars in 1978 as measured by surveys conducted by The Harris Poll during that decade on the qualities that impact America’s exceptionalism, LGBT rights and gun control.

One key study from that era was the Make America Great survey, which was launched in 1973. Conducted in 1973, 1975, 1978 and 1980, the poll asked Americans what attributes would make the country great at that time and in the future. In the 1973 survey, Americans defined the country’s greatness by its industrial know-how and scientific progress, hard-working people, rich natural resources and our system of private property. They were also convinced that factors such as equal opportunity for racial minorities, our ability to get along with other nations, expanded free education, and a higher standard of living for all would make America great in the future.

Nonetheless, some of those factors were prioritized differently over time. In 1978, scientific research moved to the top of the list of factors that would make America great in the future and by 1980, with the country’s sagging productivity and Ronald Regan’s introduction of the Welfare Queen trope into public discourse, Americans’ sentiments shifted as they believed that “a highly motivated workforce” would become a major factor in making America great during the next 25 years.


Beyond sentiments on America’s greatness during that decade, 1978 was also a pivotal moment for gay rights. It was the first time the rainbow Gay Pride flag was flown during the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. It was also the year that California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, was assassinated. The year prior, 1977, helped set the stage for 1978’s events. Gay Rights became a more central issue in America following the repeal of an ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida, prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals thanks to the efforts of celebrity singer, Anita Bryant, and her political coalition of Christian fundamentalists, Save Our Children, Inc. Shortly after the vote, the Harris Poll conducted a study on Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuals at the time. According to the study, although the public felt that discrimination against homosexuals was not justified, most Americans were opposed to hiring them for jobs that might bring them in contact with the young. 63% and 58% did not think that admitted homosexuals should be counselors in a camp for young people and a school principal, respectively. But Americans had less opposition to gay individuals serving as artists (86%), factory workers (85%), store clerks (80%) and TV news commentators (72%).

1978 was also the year that America’s support for a gun control law reached a record high. 80% of Americans favored federal laws “requiring that all handguns people own be registered by federal authorities.” A number that seems unfathomable today. Those numbers were just as high for people favoring federal laws controlling gun sales (73%) and permits for purchasing rifles (73%). These views could be explained as a backlash following rising crime rates in that era with the arrest of serial killer, Ted Bundy, and the Hillside Strangler’s murders. By 1981, pessimism set in. Almost defeated, majority of Americans (52%) began to see gun laws as futile, agreeing that “even if laws were passed making it harder for people to get guns, control of guns doesn’t really get at the heart of the violence problem.”

The Eights” offers a brief decade-by-decade history of America’s culture wars in years ending in eight from 1948 to 2008. The Harris Poll is currently working on a new poll with The Brian Lehrer Show, a 2018 version of the Make America Great survey.

For more Harris insights on subsequent decades, tune in to “The Eights,” on The Brian Lehrer Show airing weekdays from 10am-noon on WNYC 93.9 FM, AM 820 and www.wnyc.org.